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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

Your Guide to Answering “What Is Your Greatest Accomplishment?”

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Bailey Zelena; DMEPhotography/Getty Images

Have you ever been asked what your favorite movie or song is and found yourself unable to come up with a decisive answer? How could you narrow it down to just one? You might feel the same about interview questions like “What is your greatest accomplishment?” Your single greatest accomplishment? Really?! How do you narrow down everything you’ve done to one singular achievement? Or what if you feel like none of your accomplishments are impressive enough to sound like your “greatest”?

Luckily, when you’re answering this question in a job interview, it’s pretty straightforward to narrow your answer down—and describe your accomplishment succinctly.

Why interviewers ask

When they’re hiring someone, employers are looking for certain competencies and characteristics for both the role and their company overall. Your choice of greatest achievement will show the interviewer what you consider important, and how you achieved it will tell them about your approach to setting goals and getting things done. They can also get a read on your definition of success.

How to choose your greatest accomplishment

For this question, you’ll want to talk about an accomplishment that’s targeted to the company and its needs as well as the position you’re interviewing for. So do your homework: Review the job description, the company’s website, and its social media presence if you haven’t already. Be sure to check out any recent press or employee reviews, too. If you received notes from a recruiter or have a connection within the company who referred you for the job, these will also help you understand the company better.

Then think about which of your past accomplishments is most relevant. For example, if you’ve read that one of the company’s core values is about having “a sense of ownership,” you’ll want to choose a time when you took on a project because you saw it needed to be done, or stepped up to fill in the gaps on your team when someone left for another job. Bonus points if the project you took on or gaps you filled were directly relevant to the work you’d be doing in this job.

You also want to choose a professional accomplishment unless a personal accomplishment is especially relevant to the role. So as impressive as the time you binged Game of Thrones in one weekend or scored those Taylor Swift tickets was, they don’t really belong in this answer.

If you’re having trouble coming up with accomplishments you might talk about, here are are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • How did you contribute to company goals in previous roles? Maybe you had a big impact on a key performance indicator like increased revenue or spearheaded the development of a new product feature.
  • What impact did you have on a team as a mentor, manager, or team player? Perhaps you helped onboard an intern and set them up for success, which benefited the entire organization.
  • How did you help an organization become more efficient? Maybe you led process improvements by enhancing communication channels.
  • What did you do to enhance the customer or client experience? Maybe you helped innovate toward a new user-centric solution.
  • If you’re new to the workforce: Did you ever take the lead on anything in a student organization or during volunteer work? Maybe you organized an event, won a competition, or raised money for a good cause.
  • If your interviewer asks specifically for a non-work example: Beyond the office, what personal goals have you met? Maybe you ran a marathon or hit a major goal in one of your hobbies, or maybe you overcame a personal challenge of some kind.

If it’s hard to choose just one achievement that feels like the “greatest” accomplishment, then go back to your research and think about which achievement would feel most relevant to the hiring manager you’re trying to impress and the job you’re trying to land.

How to answer

As with any interview question, you’ll want to have a strategy for organizing your response. The tried-and-true way to structure your answer is with a simple story arc. “The best interview stories have a clear starting point, a high point, a low point, and a definitive ending,” says Timothy Thomas, an executive coach at Coaching Technology Group. “It’s important to have a story that has both a high and low point because you can use the contrast to give your story some stakes—something that was at risk.”

How do you make sure your story has a clear structure and arc? Brush up on the STAR method.

Here’s how the STAR method works:

  1. Set up the situation that led to your accomplishment. Keep this concise—only give enough detail for your interviewer to understand the story.
  2. Establish what the task or goal you set out to achieve was. This might be what was assigned to you as a work task or a goal you set for yourself.
  3. Walk them through, the action (or actions) you took. Your “greatest accomplishment” answer should often be as much about process as outcome, so this will likely be the bulk of your answer. For example, Neiha Arora, a recruiter at Starbucks corporate headquarters, says she’s interested in hearing about how you play well with others. “When I interview, I’m not looking to hear just about a project, but more about relationship management. How do you work with your coworkers? How are you able to influence and lead?”
  4. Discuss the results of your action as well as what effects your accomplishment had on your company. If you have numbers to help establish the scale and impact of your achievement, jot them down ahead of your interview so that you can easily reference them while answering this question.

Once you have your story laid out, prepare and practice your answer so it comes naturally. It doesn’t need to sound perfect, but you need to sound confident.

Example answers for “What is your greatest accomplishment?”

Here’s what all this advice looks like in practice:

Example answer for a sales role

Say you’re applying for a sales manager role. You may want to show off your grit and competitive side and cite a recent, quantifiable example. Here’s how you might use the STAR method to talk about your achievement:

Situation: “My greatest accomplishment was when I helped the street lighting company I worked for convince the small town of Bend, Oregon to convert antiquated street lighting to energy-efficient LED bulbs.”

Task: “My role was created to promote and sell the energy-efficient bulbs, while touting the long-term advantage of reduced energy costs. As this was a new role, I had to develop a way to educate city officials on the value of our energy-efficient bulbs. This was challenging since our products had an high up-front cost compared to less efficient lighting options.”

Action: “I created an information packet and held local community events aimed at city officials and the tax-paying public. There, I was able to demo the company product, answer questions, and evangelize the value of LED bulbs for the long term. I was able to reach a wide variety of community members with these events, and in this small town, it was crucial to have the public on board.”

Result: “I not only reached my first-year sales goal of $100,000 with this sale, but I was also able to help us land another contract in a neighboring city that was interested in energy efficiencies. Plus, the community-focused communication strategy garnered attention from the national media. And I’m proud to say I got a promotion within a year to Senior Sales Representative.”

Example answer that shows off your teamwork

Suppose you’re applying for a role in a typically collaborative field such as design or software engineering. This is a chance to talk about how you persuaded your teammates to go in a certain direction or adopt a particular strategy.

So you might say something like:

“My greatest accomplishment was when I was a content leader at a local design agency. I was part of a small team assigned to redesigning the agency website in hopes of attracting new regional clients. As a senior member of the team, I was tasked with being both the content strategist and the overall project manager. Our team was small but needed to deliver big results as our little agency was being crowded out by bigger agencies in our market.

“To stay on track, I set up clear creative milestones and regular check-ins with the agency owners. From the first kickoff where I organized a fun brainstorm to identify our unique positioning to weekly meetings where we gave each other direct and actionable feedback, I was able to engage other team members in a way that made everyone feel valued and motivated. I even sat alongside my design counterparts to make edits right to their files, building up camaraderie as well as ensuring efficiency.

“Our team completed the redesign on schedule, and with the help of our marketing squad, we were able to see an increase in site traffic within two weeks. We landed two new client pitches within 30 days and secured both of them for long-term campaigns. Through trust building and collaboration with every team member, I can proudly say the redesign was a major success.”

Example answer for a recent grad

If you haven’t held a full-time job before, you’re likely going to find your greatest accomplishment in your education, activities, volunteer work or past part-time jobs and internships. Here’s an answer that highlights some transferable skills—like time management, communication, work ethic, and prioritization—that’ll be useful in any job.

“My greatest accomplishment is probably making it through my senior year of college with a 3.8 GPA. Unfortunately, the summer before, my parents ran into some financial trouble and weren’t able to help me out with living expenses anymore. I knew how lucky I was to have their help for the first three years of school, and I decided that I wasn’t going to let it set me back.

“I got a part-time job waiting tables alongside my coursework, capstone project, and extracurricular activities. I was upfront with my boss that once the semester started, I’d need to schedule around classes and project meetings, but that I’d be available to work the weekend night shifts that were hardest to fill with a mostly college student staff. Then, the first week of classes, I took all my syllabi and marked off every significant due date on a calendar, as well as major milestones I’d need to hit ahead of the bigger due dates. That helped me set up meetings with my capstone project group that wouldn’t interrupt my coursework and from there I was able to give my boss my availability. Unfortunately, two weeks in, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to fulfill all my duties as treasurer of the juggling club—which I’d really been looking forward to. But I went to my fellow club leaders and we decided that instead of me stepping down, we’d elect an assistant treasurer who was able to be at all the events I had to miss due to my work schedule.

“It was a tough year, but by keeping schoolwork as my first priority, followed by my job, I was able to get As in most of my classes and make enough money to pay my rent and even send a bit of money home, which was personally the most rewarding to me. And by being up front with the juggling club, I was able to make sure my responsibilities there were always covered and I didn’t let down the friends I made over the last four years.”

Even if you never ever get this exact question, thinking about your greatest accomplishment will be worth the time you put into it. It will not only prepare you for a job interview, but also a great way to get to know yourself and your values better.

Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.